An Involuntary Adventure into a Type of Retirement

Cara Brown, BMR (OT), MSc* recently studied the role of occupational therapy practitioners in enhancing the quality of life for people in work-cessation transitions.  She was particularly interested in folks like me who made this transition when not of traditional retirement age.  Although I am still not convinced that my working days are over, I felt compelled to introduce my own involuntary adventure into a “type” of retirement.  My letter follows:

Thank you for your recent article in AJOT on Expanding the Occupational Therapy Role to Support Transitions from Work to Retirement for People with Progressive Health Conditions.**  I found it useful and respectful of persons facing both situations in life.  There may be another category to consider:  those with sudden loss of work roles who enter into “retirement.”

I am an Occupational Therapist who worked over 30 years before entering into this latter category within one night:  October 11, 2011!  I continued to work part time for a short time then decreased my hours to a few home health visits per week.  When it became clear that the onset of a serious illness made it a struggle to focus on the needs of my patients and direct the care of our Occupational Therapy Assistants, I had to stop working altogether.  My last day of paid employment was February 2, 2012.  I spent the next 2 years being my own OT by researching my condition and seeking various medical and alternative health interventions.  Energy conservation and work simplification were my way of life.  Returning to work was always my intention.

It is now 7 years since the onset of a biotoxin illness and numerous other medical conditions that continue to restrict my ability to function.  It took me those first 2 years to realize that the daily convulsive episodes and other illness factors were not going away any time soon; just the orthopedic injuries and deconditioning made it difficult to care for my activities of daily living.  Several times per week I needed to be carried to the bathroom, assisted with bathing after the worst of those episodes.  I developed, by the grace of God, dozens of new coping strategies (e.g. making my breakfast the night before and putting it bedside in a lunch bag in case I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning).  Still, I missed working.  I started making jewelry in the middle of the night and selling them online to keep my brain stimulated and some adaptive role involvement going since I was up all night long anyways.  It was the only way to avoid more seizure attacks.  My life was upside down in many ways for sure.

It took me weeks not days to eventually sell my jewelry business and start to develop a professional website akin to my occupational therapy practice in home health.  I designed a bathroom safety product and began to develop the concept while networking within every aspect of this new venture hoping it would be a transitional activity  back into practice.  In doing so, I could monitor my activity level, continue to challenge my brain, learn new computer and marketing skills, and get excited that what I had learned when off of work was not “wasted.”  After about a year in this new direction, I had to stop.  Things got even worse before they got better.  The convulsive episodes progressed, aggressive treatment took its toll, and just caring for my basic needs was all I could do.  My spirit was crushed.  That was 2016.  By the end of the year I was hospitalized with shingles.  The stress was unbelievable and my body was breaking down further.  I changed the focus of Two Step Solutions several times; my personal blog (www.justjuliewrites.com) tells the medical and emotional story.  Gee, I did learn how to blog and design simple websites (and helped 2 others with theirs)!

But my personal financial resources in addition to my physical and emotional resources (of which you mention in your article) were gone.  The isolation was staggering even with a plethora of online support groups and a Prayer Group I started with two other largely home-bound gals.  Eventually some specialized care funded, in part by a Go Fund Me campaign and an unexpected tax refund, improved my condition enough to start some volunteer work this past year.  I hoped that the volunteer work could progress to part time employment whether within or outside the field of occupational therapy but later in the Fall my health started to slide again and new medical conditions emerged that required my energies, my attention such as it remained!  I needed to keep things low key despite any “goals” I continued to set every morning, 7 years later.

The underlying message to sharing my story with you is to express the extreme difficulty I had as an Occupational Therapist to go through all of this who not only loved her profession but loved OCCUPATION.  Every day when I got out of bed since college, I set goals.  This continued through my time of disability.  The items on the list got fewer as time went on and the complications, unpredictability of complex illness continued.  I never stopped trying to find solutions for either the medical conditions or functional limitations posed by them.  If I needed to wear a charcoal mask in public to be able to shop at the grocery store then so be it.  If I needed to sit in my vehicle to rest or in the cafe of a store pretending everything was o.k., I did so.  I never felt ashamed to be online instead of in-person meeting people; genuine friendships came from meeting fellow bloggers with whom I have now met or “Skyped.”  

Dear Cara, I hope that you will keep seeking to understand the role of occupation in the lives of person with not only progressive but sudden, serious medical conditions or traumatic accidents.  Perhaps the cancer literature has studies to further your investigation as many cancer survivors do return to productive lives.  And note as you go along that there are tens of thousands of folks like me out there just hoping for the opportunity to do the same; we just don’t know if that will be our outcome . . . yet!  In the meantime, I am not giving up.  If I did not have my faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ, I would have done so by now.  Not even my drive for meaningful occupation can come close to keeping me going as knowing my future is secure in eternity because of my faith (regardless of the simplicity, setbacks, and sometimes messiness of my daily life). I submit to you that those facing progressive and sudden loss of primary occupations will require assurance from the Creator God to ultimately succeed in this involuntary type of retirement. 

Godspeed lady in life and in your work,

Julie (MS, OTR/L)

Advanced Master Gardener

Editor and Asst Editor of 2 Publications

*Instructor and PhD Candidate, Department of Occupational Therapy, College of Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

**American Journal of Occupational Therapy, November/December 2018, Vol 72/No 6, p 347010

He Loved Well, He Lived for Christ

The passing of John Sr. brought sorrow as I considered the impact this man had on my life.  And I was not alone.  Everyone knew John’s love for his family and friends, the Lord, Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of believers united by our faith.  It wasn’t until I started to describe three key scenes in my past where his care was palpable to me that I started to grieve the passing of this faithful servant of the Lord.  Surely the heavenly hosts are celebrating your coming home sir . . .

My connection to John Sr. was initially tainted by the critical viewpoint of my former spouse.  I suppose it’s easy to criticize someone else for faults that the two of you may share?  Years later this appeared to be the case.  So when I ran into John Sr. just 3 weeks after my former spouse left me, I was not prepared for this gentleman’s reaction to the  news.  He asked how Craig was doing and I was speechless for a moment:  did he not know what had happened?  I guess not.  I had to tell him.  John Sr’s face fell as I shared the devastation that was just beginning to unfold in my life;  John Sr. looked at me as if someone had punched him in the gut right there in the store!  He could barely speak, mumbled a few condolences, and shuffled away obviously affected by my story.  In the moment I was stunned as well.  Why was he walking away when I had just shared my heart with my elder brother in Christ?  Much later I supposed it was a type of grief reaction.  Not long afterwards, I experienced the most important message from our encounter that day:  my brother in Christ loved me as his sister in Christ, like a father I did not have at the time.  He was hurting for me, hurting for the fall from grace of our brother in Christ.  I also learned that day just how profoundly adultery affects many others in the body of Christ in addition to the spouse.

John Sr. didn’t live anymore in the town of that grocery store where I had encountered him.  I would not see him again until a few months later when visiting with his daughter who had become a good friend of mine.  Deb and I had traveled from the Chicago suburbs where we lived to her parents’ home in the Wisconsin countryside.  A neighbor and fellow member of our church (where we had all met) came along for what was to be a fun time of fellowship, food, and relaxation.  Their youngest son played classical guitar to everyone’s delight and John Sr. told amazing stories of missionaries they knew, places they had been, and so on.  We were one big family for the weekend!  That is, until nighttime came.

The Y family always had a menagerie of sofas with hide-a-beds, cots, and blankets to accommodate everyone.   Me and my neighbor, Ardie, made our beds in the living room while the family tucked themselves to sleep in their respective bedrooms throughout the modest home.  But I could not sleep.  Instead of feeling full from the lively fellowship and activities of the visit, I was filled with grief and sorrow from the tremendous losses in progress in my life back home.  I lain in the dark with tears streaming down my face like a crack in a retaining wall holding back an avalanche of tears.  Finally I could not hold it in anymore.  Everyone was asleep in the dark starry night whilst I was coming unglued!  I gathered myself as best as I could and walked out into the cool blackness that received me outside.  The tears and whimpers gushed easily then uncontrollably.  “Would they ever stop?”  I wondered.

Before long I could hear some wrestling of the folks inside the house.  A light went on in one of the bedrooms, illuminating the front porch where I was holding myself up against a wall.  Arlene and John Sr. were up!  Despite my best efforts to weep quietly, they had heard me and came to comfort me.  John Sr. muttered again with the same type of sorrow I had seen in the grocery store.  Arlene wrapped her warm, motherly arms around me and brought me inside to sit on a handmade bench with her for as long as I needed.  He got me a blanket.  She stayed with me until the tears flowed no more.  Eventually I spoke a little while she simply listened.  What a gift she gave me that night!  No one said much about it all the next morning.  Somehow they just all understood the pain I was going through.  They did the best thing that they could do to help me through that traumatic time in my life:  they just loved on me like one of their own.

John Sr. and Arlene were the best at loving on people, a model we know comes from the love who is embodied in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  That love is as pure as it is convicting with the truth of His Word and the leading of the Holy Spirit.  The two of them shared scripture often and how the Lord had led them through their lives, how He too may encourage and lead your in your days as well.  I experienced this witness in an unexpected way about 3 years later.  The Lord had begun the process of restoration in my life and brought me a wonderful man of God named Steve.  We were engaged that September and I wanted to visit the important places and people of my life before moving to Indiana to marry him.  I brought Steve to meet John Sr. and Arlene, this time without my friend Deb, their daughter.  I wanted them to see my happiness and thank them for being an important part of it coming to fruition.

We had a wonderful visit.  After Steve and I returned to Illinois from that long weekend, and after Steve had already gone on home to Indiana, I got a call from John Sr.  He didn’t waste any time chatting about our visit and got right to the point:  check yourself and the truth of God’s Word, the Bible, before you take this step in marrying Steve.  I was a bit taken aback by him questioning things but heeded his advice.  The next few weeks were filled with prayer, scripture reading, pastoral counselling, and looking honestly with Steve at our Biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage.  All counsel pointed to a blessing for us so we proceeded to get married by the end of the year.  The counsel of John Sr. was a necessary part of our preparation that brought clarity that would be needed when others would pass judgement on our union.  We have complete confidence and peace that  we made a God-honoring decision to be together forever.

I have often quoted Mark Twain at key times in my life who said that the un-examined life is not worth living.  Indeed we can find rich value and meaning by taking a closer look at our lives within the context of God’s plans for our lives, ways He gifts each of us, orchestration of events, our limitations, and the stuff that He crafts for each of us as we live out our days on this fallen earth in which we dwell.  If we are honest then our search for meaning will lead us to the Creator: the person of Jesus Christ.  If we heed the call to recognize our sinful nature, receive His gift of salvation and redemption then choose to grow in knowledge and character of our Lord, then the transformation of our lives will shine for all the world to see.  We will become a witness for His transforming power, His love, His grace, His mercy, His goodness.  And a life seasoned by the love of Christ, never tainted by the trials we all endure, can become a life well-lived, well-loved for the glory of the Lord.  This is who John Sr. was.  This is the legacy that he has left for those who got to know him, were ministered to by his love and care, who witnessed his walk with the Lord every day of his life.

Well done John Sr:  faithful servant of the Lord!  Well done!  May God be the glory for the faithful witness of my brother in Christ.  May He also bless your beloved bride Arlene, until she joins you one day in the presence of our Lord.  Thank you for bringing me into your spiritual family through the faith that we share.  You have made a difference!  JJ

couple, Christian, husband and wife, Wisconsin, visiting, friends, woods, Fall, sunny day, engaged
Steve and Julie in Wisconsin, September 2, 2007